Abe to continue charm offensive as Trump visits Japan

Abe to continue charm offensive as Trump visits Japan

US President Donald Trump takes part in a bilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC. (File/AFP)

Donald Trump starts on Saturday a multi-day trip to Japan with a packed agenda, including preparations for next month’s G-20 summit. The primary reason for the visit, from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s viewpoint, is the opportunity to deepen his personal bond with the mercurial president and fortify US-Japan ties in the face of significant international uncertainty.

Top of the agenda is not just the unraveling US-North Korean talks, but also the potential for finalizing a US-Japan trade deal, which Trump and Director of the US National Economic Council Larry Kudlow have, remarkably, said could be done by the end of the month — an assessment that seems very optimistic.

The fact that Trump is visiting Japan so soon before next month’s G-20 meeting in Osaka, and after the two leaders met only last month in the US, underlines the relative warmth of Washington-Tokyo relations right now. Abe, in particular, has invested massive personal political capital in the relationship — even reportedly nominating the US president for the Nobel Peace Prize.

To be sure, Abe’s charm offensive has paid some dividends. This includes the energy that is now being put into the US-Japan free trade deal, with Kudlow scheduled to be in Tokyo on Friday to try to accelerate the negotiations.

However, Japan has also been caught by surprise on several fronts by Trump during his presidency. This includes North Korea, as Tokyo was concerned, especially last year, about the speed with which the US president appeared to be pushing forward talks with Kim Jong Un.

While Abe asserted that Trump showed “courage” in doing so, including the summit in Singapore last year, the prime minister has been wary about where the talks could lead. There has been particular anxiety that Tokyo’s key interests are pressed by Trump in the talks, including the issue of Japanese nationals abducted in the 1970s and 1980s.

Abe has also been worried that Trump may look to a do a deal with Kim without taking Japan’s broader security interests into account. This included Pyongyang potentially agreeing to give up missiles capable of reaching the US, without eliminating the short and medium-range missiles that threaten Japan and other nearby countries.

One of the key reasons Abe is keen to be so close to Trump is Japanese concerns about a 'rising China.’

Andrew Hammond

Tensions between the two sides on this issue most recently surfaced this month, when the long-time security allies appeared to disagree over Pyongyang’s recent launch of short-range ballistic missiles. Tokyo criticized the move as a violation of UN resolutions, while Trump said he did not believe the moves were a “breach of trust” by Kim.

On the economic front, Abe is pleased with the energy that is being put into the US-Japanese talks, even though he and other Japanese officials are skeptical that the negotiations can be concluded this month. In part, this is because the Washington-Tokyo negotiations come in the context of previous political tensions over the bilateral economic relationship, including Trump’s often negative comments about Japan on the 2016 US president election trail.

Securing close ties with Washington is important for Abe, who is on track to become the longest-serving premier in post-war Japanese history. One of the key reasons Abe is keen to be so close to Trump is Japanese concerns about a “rising China” in the Asia-Pacific region.

The prime minister has particular worries about China’s growing influence in the context of the uncertainties that Trump’s presidency has brought, including the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is a trade and investment deal originally intended to lock Washington into deeper economic partnerships with its traditional allies in the region.

In this fluid geopolitical landscape, Abe is seeking to align his long-standing foreign policy plans around that of Trump’s “America First” agenda. Thus, in a context whereby the president appears to want a more internationally assertive Japan, the prime minister has a long-held ambition to overturn much of the remaining legal and political underpinning of the country’s post-war pacifist security identity so that it can become more externally engaged. Here, it is no coincidence that one of the visits Trump may reportedly make during his trip is to a naval base in Yokosuka. This will see him visit a destroyer that has been refitted as what is being depicted as Japan’s first post-war aircraft carrier. 

One big, specific measure Abe wishes to push for is the abolition of Article 9. This is the clause in Japan’s post-war constitution that constrains the country’s military to a strictly defensive role, rather than a conventional army, and has meant that defense spending has most often remained below 1 percent of gross domestic product.

To overturn this, Abe would need not just a two-thirds majority in both chambers of the legislature, but also a simple majority in a national referendum. This could prove a major challenge, however, given the large body of Japanese public opinion that still values its post-war pacifism. Japan remains the only country in the world to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons.

Taken overall, Trump’s trip therefore represents Abe’s latest move to fortify Japan’s US alliance in the face of China’s rise. He would dearly love to cap his long period of office off with historic change around the country’s post-war pacifism, which may enable it to become more internationally engaged, but at the risk of significantly inflaming tensions with Beijing.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economic
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